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A blistering wind dried the tears burning Cindy Chase's face as she stared at the race cars surging across the black, twisting track. She leaned against a tree in a poor parody of comfort. The oak bark pressed uncomfortably through her blue cotton blouse and into her weary muscles. This tree was the only place she had found that was even remotely cool. Her forearms, normally not exposed to the sun, were pink, probably burned worse than they looked. This served only to make her more miserable. It had never seemed this hot in Atlanta.
The heat was only one component of her misery. She'd have gladly traded her long, well-worn jeans for a pair of shorts. Maybe even a miniskirt, she thought in an attempt to cheer herself. Then maybe the men would pay a little more attention than they have been. She had never felt so totally worthless in all her life.
She'd had less than "no" luck since she'd entered the gates of Hallet raceway. Everything she'd tried had come out wrong. It seemed like the people she'd spoken with thought she was asking them for money, not help. Then again, in her rumpled clothing, washed and never ironed, and not her best, she probably looked like a homeless panhandler, or even a drunk. She had never lived out of a suitcase before and had never realized how difficult that could be. For too long she'd taken for granted things like a fully stocked bathroom, an ironing board, walk-in closets filled with clean clothes . . .
. . . and a family.
Cindy hadn't seen her reflection in a few hours, which was just as well. She knew she probably looked like hell. Her makeup had long ago melted in the heatif she hadn't washed it away with crying.
Maybe I should go back to the car, she thought dismally, trying not to look at the little color snapshot of her son, Jamie, she clutched in her hand. Nobody here wants to help me. Nobody cares, and they don't even look surprised! It's like little eight-year-old boys disappear all the time in Oklahoma. She wasn't normally a vengeful person, but she couldn't help wishing some of these snots would get a taste of what it was like to have a child kidnaped by an ex-spouse and dragged halfway across the country.
Reluctantly, her eyes were drawn to the picture. The lower right-hand corner was wearing away where she had been holding it constantly for the past week. The other corners were folded and fraying. For a week a thousand pairs of eyes had stared at this picture, with varying degrees of interest, or more often, disinterest. A thousand minds had searched memories for a few moments. One by one, they had sadlyor indifferentlyshaken their heads: No, I haven't seen him. Is he your son? Have you tried the police? Are you sure he didn't just wander off? It was as if they were all thinking: Daddies don't kidnap their own children. It just doesn't happen. It's just too horrible to imagine. She wanted to strangle them all.
Yes, I know. Daddies aren't supposed to kidnap their children, take them across the state line, and hide them from their mothers.
But sometimes, they do.
She had carefully mopped up a tear that had splashed on the picture, leaving behind a barely noticeable spot on the photograph's surface. It was a school portrait taken a year before at Morgan Woods Elementary, when Jamie's hair had been much shorter and their lives were much different; normal, almost. Before his father joined the cult, anyway. The Chosen Ones. Chosen for what?
Staring from the picture, Jamie's eyes locked on to hers, pleading, and she knew that she wouldn't be leaving the track just then. She had to keep looking now, on this broiling racetrack, just a little bit longer. As long as there were people to ask on this planet, she'd continue the search.
Oh, Jamie, damn it, she thought, crying inside. Why did your daddy do this to us?
A car roared past on the track, jolting her from the quicksand of self-pity she was suffocating herself with. The race reminded her why she had come to this place to look for her son. In Georgia we used to come to places like these, a racetrack, any racetrack, no matter how small. He loved them all, unknown or famous. It didn't matter if it was paved, or a dirt track where they banged into each other until only one was left running.
James, senior, had been burdened with many addictions, the one most harmless being race cars. Every weekend, no matter what the weather was like, he would trudge to the races with family in tow; Jamie, too, seemed to have inherited his father's obsession. Cindy had resented the incessant trips to the races, the constant shouting over the engines, the near incoherent babble of car techese he shared with his son. "Car racing is a science," he had said, over and over, in the face of her too-obvious disinterest. "And a racer is a scientist."
"So was Dr. Jekyll," Cindy had retorted, failing then to see the eerie foreshadowing of her words. Though at the time she grew weary of the races, she now dreamed of those days and the unity of their family then. It was a family Donna Reed would have been jealous of. At least that was what I thought. I never looked under the surface of things, never asked questions; just mopped the floors and made the beds and kept everyone fed and happy, she thought miserably. And it was all a lie. I'll be lucky if I ever find my son.
She'd seen signs of danger, but she was hard-pressed to remember when exactly they had begun. James' drinking, for instance, had increased so gradually that she hadn't even noticed it.
Or, she realized in retrospect, she had chosen not to notice.
Then had come the mysterious "bowling tournaments" that took all night, from which James would return with a crazed expressionand a strong odor of Wild Turkeybabbling about bizarre, mystical stuff, a combination of Holy Roller and New Age crystal-crunching. At first she thought the obvious: that he was seeing another woman. Which didn't explain his increased sex drive, something he would demonstrate immediately on his return.
That was when she realized something was wrong, but didn't want to admit it. In the beginning she was more afraid of what was going on with him than angryafraid of the unknown.
The man who James became was not remotely like the man she had married. His behavior just didn't fit into any of her reality scenarios. It was all just too weird to understand. The strange books he wouldn't let her see, the things he rattled on about when he came home drunkit didn't fit any pattern she was familiar with, nothing she'd seen on Sally or Oprah, either.
She gave up on her friends and neighbors when they all carried on about what a good provider James was, and how she should be grateful and turn a blind eye to his "little failings." "Women endure," said her nearest neighbor, who looked like a fifties TV-Mom in apron, pearl earrings and page-boy haircut. "That's what we're put on earth to do."
As things worsened, she lived one day at a time and tried not to think at all. Her son saw that his daddy was not acting normally. She kept thinking it was a phase, like the model-building phase, or the comic-collecting phase. He'd get tired of it and go back to cars, like he always did.
Then came the call from his employer, the owner of an auto parts franchise. James had worked for him as parts counter manager for ten years. That counter had been their version of a wishing wellit was the place where they had met. She had been buying wiper blades, and he'd shown her how to put them on. Fred Hammond, his boss, was calling to see if James had recovered from the surgery, and if so when he would return to work. The place was a shambles; he was sorely missed there.
She had no idea what he was talking about.
Fred explained, in a somewhat mystified tone, that James had taken a leave of absence from his job to go into the hospital for "serious surgery" of an unknown nature. Fred had gone to the hospital the day after the surgery was supposed to take place and, when checking with the information desk, found no record of James' stay, even under every imaginable spelling of "James Chase."
But Cindy knew that James had gotten up at the usual time and, wearing the store's uniform, supposedly went off to work in the pickup. Cindy apologized and said she couldn't imagine what was going on, but she would have him call as soon as possible. She hung up and stared at the telephone for a long, long time.
She remembered that day vividly, and she would always call it "That Day." It was the day her life changed, irrevocably. During a single moment of "That Day" the thin, tenuous walls of denial had crumbled like tissue. It was the day she realized that her husband had gone completely insane. Jamie was in the backyard when his father returned that night, and for a desperate second she considered sending him to a friend's house in anticipation of a major fight. She decided not to. I don't know that anything is wrong, she thought, clinging to the last, disappearing threads of hope. It could be something like in a movie, could just be a mistake, a misunderstanding. Maybe it was even a crank call. . . .
He had pulled into the garage, as usual, and he came into the kitchen still wearing the uniform shirt with "James" embroidered over the left pocket. He even complained about what a bad day he'd had at the store, something about an inventory of spark plugs that just didn't jive.
She quickly pulled herself together and gently, like a mother, put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him, once. Her expression must have been strained, she would later think, since a cloud of suspicion darkened his face. He also smelled, no, stank, of alcohol, though his motions didn't betray intoxication. He fixed her with a raised eyebrow as Cindy blurted out, "I got a call from your boss today."
"Oh?" he said nonchalantly, as he reached for a beer in the fridge. "What did he want?"
Damn you, James, she thought violently. You're going to make this as difficult as possible, aren't you? "He wanted to know how the surgery went." She stepped closer, trying to be confrontational, knowing that she was failing. "Actually, I would too. What is he talking about, Jim?"
He said nothing as he started for the dining nook, paused, and retrieved another beer before planting himself firmly in his usual spot at the kitchen table. Timidly, Cindy sat next to him, touching his arm. He pulled away, as if her hand were something distasteful. They sat in silence for several moments, enough time for James to take a few long pulls of beer, as if to bolster his courage.
"I've found the glory of God," he said, and belched at a volume only beer could produce.
"I see," Cindy had replied, though she really didn't. "I thought you were an atheist."
"Not anymore," he said, taking another long drink. "I've seen the light, and the wisdom, of our leader. I haven't been at the store, in, oh, two, three weeks."
"Just like that," she said, starting to get angry. " `I haven't been to the store.' " She couldn't believe it. "So what am I supposed to do now, throw a party? You haven't been to work and that's okay. Am I hearing this right?"
A serene, smug expression creased the intoxicated features. "I didn't say I haven't been going to work. I have been blessed with new work. I work for God now, and we will be provided for."
As if punctuating the sentence, he crumpled the empty can into a little ball, as if it were paper, and expertly tossed it into the kitchen trash, which was overflowing with the crushed cans. Cindy remembered thinking that he crushed his cans like that so that he wouldn't have to empty the trash so often.
Outside, Jamie had climbed into his treehouse, taking potshots at imaginary soldiers with his plastic rifle.
"Come with me tonight," Jim had said suddenly. She jumped at the suddenness and the fierce intensity of his words. He gripped her arm, hard, until it hurt. "Come and meet Brother Joseph at the Praise Meeting tonight. Please. You'll understand everything, then."
Reluctantly, she had nodded. Then she got up and began preparing dinner for that night.
"Jamie is coming, too," he amended. She had wanted to object then, but saw no way she could get a baby-sitter on such short notice.
"Okay, Jim," she'd said, pulling a strainer down out of the cabinet. "Whatever you say."
For now, she had thought to herself. Until I get a handle on this insanity. Then watch out.
Now she regretted not paying more attention to the particular brand of psychosis preached that night by Brother Joseph, the leader of the Sacred Heart of the Chosen Ones. Jamie stayed close to her the entire time, apparently sensing something wrong with the situation. They drove for hours, it seemed, far out into the country. James again said little, commenting only on this or that along the road, chewing on his own teeth, biding time. As they came closer to the place of the Praise Meeting, Jim became less talkative. A fog thicker than the alcohol had descended on him, and he stared blankly ahead. Cindy wondered if he wasn't insane but just brainwashed, like in a TV movie. That was something that could be reversed, she hoped, and the more she thought about it, the more the brainwashing theory began to make sense. But it made her even more afraid of what was to come; she wished then that she hadn't allowed Jamie along.
The little boy had inched closer to his mother in the front seat of the pickup truck. They had turned onto a dirt road and were immediately confronted by two armed men blocking their way. They were wearing berets and camouflage fatigues; their white t-shirts had a heart pierced by two crucifixes, with some slogan in Latin she couldn't translate. Even with the berets, she could tell they had been shaved bald. They brandished AK-47 machine guns; she knew about the guns from a Clint Eastwood movie she'd seen about the Grenada invasion. The weapon had a distinctive look; banana clips curled from under the stocks. Jim stopped briefly as the men shone blinding flashlights into the truck and quickly inspected the bed, which was empty. With maybe half a dozen words exchanged, the guards had waved them through.
"Those were machine guns, Jim," she'd observed, trying to sound casual and not betray the cold fear that had been clenching her stomach. "Are they legal in this state?"
"You're in God's state now."
Jim said nothing more as they drove on.
Cindy had closed her eyes, wondering what the blazes she was getting into.
Finally the truck slowed, and she had opened her eyes. Ahead of them, at the top of a hill, she'd seen a huge mansion, fully lit, with rows of cars and trucks, mostly pickups, parked in front. More men in berets directed them with metal flashlights the size of baseball bats, and one led them to a parking spot. When they got out, Cindy noticed a .45 automatic holstered at his side.
"Brother Jim! Praise the Lord! You've brought your family into the blessing of the Heart, God bless," the soldier had greeted, slapping Jim hard on his back. Jim mumbled something Cindy couldn't hear, but whatever it was the clownlike grin on the man's face didn't waver.
"Momma, I don't want to go," Jamie'd said plaintively, pulling back, lagging behind. "They got guns, Momma, ever'where. They're real guns, aren't they?"
"It's all right, hon," Cindy'd said, knowing it was a lie. It felt like she was pulling the words out with pliers, and all the time she had been thinking, Please God or whatever you are, let us get through this nonsense intact!
The main sitting room of the huge mansion had been converted into a churchlike sanctuary. Cigarette smoke hung heavily in the air, amid a low rumble of voices. Jim had led them to some empty metal folding chairs on the end of a row, near a wall. There were hundreds of people there; as she glanced around at those nearest, she found an amazing number of them to be normal country folk, many of them elderly couples. Towards the front of the assembly there was an entire section of middle-class yuppies, some drinking designer-bottled spring water. And over to the side she saw what looked like homeless people, dirty, grubby, lugging ragged backpacks. Drinking out of paper bags. Salt of the Earth.
This guy has all kinds, Cindy remembered thinking, as they awkwardly made their way to the end of the row. What is it about him that could make him so appealing to these people? These transients over here, they probably have nowhere else to go. But those guys, up in the front. They look like they just walked off Wall Street. What gives?
More soldiers stood at attention here, thin, lean men in berets, bald like the guards at the gate. Spaced from each other like stone carvings, about twelve feet apart, they watched those around them with their hands behind their backs. Solemn. Unyielding. At the end of their row was a young man, about eighteen, who still had his short, blond hair. He looked like he had been pumping iron since he was eight. Tattooed clumsily on his forearm was a crooked swastika, the kind of artwork kids did to themselves out of boredom, with needles and ball pen ink. He gazed forward icily, solidly, as if cast in steel, looking like he hadn't blinked in a year.
I don't like this. I don't like this at all, Cindy had thought, holding Jamie closer. And it hasn't even started. This has been one big mistake. I can handle this madness myself, but I should never have brought Jamie into this nest of snakes!
"James," she'd whispered urgently, tugging at his arm. "I want to leave. Right now! These people are crazy!"
"Just relax," Jim had said, yawning. "It will be so much better if you just relax. You haven't even heard what you came to hear. It really does fall into place. It becomes very clear, once you hear Brother Joseph speak."
At some point during her husband's little rote speech her eyes fell on the stage, and the large emblem on the wall behind it, lit from beneath by candlelight. It was a heart pierced by two crucifixes, the same symbol worn on the shirts of the soldiers around them, and was like no church decoration she had ever seen. It had looked like the kind of "art" that was airbrushed on black velvet and sold at flea markets. Totally tacky.
A hush fell on the crowd and the lights dimmed, ever so subtly. Large, silver collection plates the size of hubcaps were passed around, supervised by the armed men in berets. When one came their way James dropped a crisp, new one hundred dollar bill into the tillone among the dozens there already.
"Jim! What are you doing?" she'd gasped, when she saw the money drop. The plate had already passed her, she had realized in frustration, or she would have surreptitiously salvaged it as it went past. Jim said nothing, smiling blandly as the plate continued down the row. People were dropping large bills, multiple bills, watches, jewelry; she watched, stupefied, as the wealth amassed. She sat back in the creaking metal chair and folded her arms, in a mild state of shock. We don't have that kind of money to give to a bunch of lunatics! Have they drugged him, or is he just suddenly retarded?
"Only tithing members of the Sacred Heart will be saved. Is this your first meeting?" an elderly woman behind her had asked. Cindy made a point of ignoring her, and the woman sniffed loudly in rebuttal.
"Touchy, isn't she?" the women said behind her.
James laughed in a goofy snort. At what, Cindy had no idea.
Beside her, Jamie whimpered. "Momma, I want to go home," he said. "This place feels icky."
"It feels icky to me, too," she'd whispered in his right ear. "It will be over with soon."
"Hey, what's wrong, buckaroo?" the blond kid said, kneeling down next to Jamie. "This your first time here?"
It's his first and his last, she wanted to scream, but as the boy kneeled down, she noticed the assault rifle strapped to his back. She didn't want to argue with firearms. Jamie's sudden receptiveness to the boy didn't help either. Her son traced a figure eight over the crude swastika on the boy's forearm, apparently fascinated by it.
"It doesn't come off," Jamie said. "What is it?"
"It's a tattoo," the boy said, sounding friendly in spite of the weird trappings. "And it's our salvation." He looked up, meeting Cindy's stare with his soft, blue eyes, a disarming expression that somehow took the edge off the evil she was beginning to feel from him. He smiled at Cindy boyishly, and from his back pocket he pulled out a Tootsie Pop and gave it to Jamie, who attacked and devoured it hungrily. He's almost normalat least on the surface. But he has Nazi crosses tattooed on his arm and calls them "salvation." A boy Jamie could look like someday, she thought, in agony. Why did I have to bring him to this godawful place!
The lights dimmed further, and from somewhere appeared the minister of the church. Brother Joseph, didn't Jim say? No less than four armed soldiers escorted him to the podium, knelt, and when Brother Joseph dismissed them, took their places at the four corners of the stage, glaring at the audience. The quiet was absolute. Brother Joseph had peered into the audience, his burning eyes sweeping the crowd like the twin mouths of a double-barreled shotgun. In the utter stillness, his eyes tracked through the different faces and settled on Cindy. He smiled briefly then, and continued his inspection, lord of all he surveyed. Cindy had thought she was going to collapse when their eyes locked.
Jesus! Cindy thought in dismay. Those eyes.
He really thinks he's God's own Gift. And my crazy husband believes him.
"Momma," Jamie whispered. "Can I have a tattoo like his when we get home?"
"Shhhhhh!" the woman behind them admonished. "Quiet. Brother Joseph is about to speak."
What happened for the next three hours was a vague blur of hate images, from which she retained little. It wasn't a blackout, or even a full lapse of memory. She retained pieces, fragments, of the "sermon," and she wasn't certain if there was any coherent flow to begin with. Brother Joseph vomited a vile concoction of religion and white male supremacy that would have made a Klansman blush. That was what she remembered, anyway. The topic wavered from fundamentalist Southern Baptist preachings, to New Age channeling, to an extended foray into Neo-Nazism, sprinkled liberally with passages Cindy remembered from high school history classMein Kampf. The audience sat, enthralled; it wasn't the sermon that scared her so much as the unthinking acceptance of the congregation. Brother Joseph could have said absolutely anything, she suspected, and they would have bought it all without question.
After the sermon Cindy had made it clear to her husband she wasn't about to stay around and socialize, she wanted out now, and when she reminded Jim that she had her own set of truck keys he finally relented and, not particularly angry at having to leave, drove them home. In silence.
The next day, a Saturday, Cindy tried to broach the subject of his employment and, specifically, his income. James brushed her aside, saying that she would never understand, and asked her if she had any Jewish ancestors. She did, but didn't think it wise to tell him. He went out and spent the rest of the day playing with his son, and acted as if she didn't exist. On Sunday, he left for somewhere he didn't specify and returned late that night, almost too drunk to walk, and fell into bed.
On Monday James continued to live the lie, getting up at six and dutifully donning his uniform. He mentioned the problem with the spark plugs and other things she knew he would never deal with that day, and after he was gone Cindy didn't answer the phone, for fear it was his boss. She sent Jamie off to school, the only normal thing to happen in her life, the only thing that made sense.
The next day was the same, and the day after. She paid the bills out of the dwindling bank account, made sure Jamie did his homework, and watched her husband deteriorate. Cindy also began contemplating divorce, but taking the first tentative step towards breaking up, like calling a lawyer, was too terrifying for words. It was easier to live the lie along with her husband and hope they would live happily ever after.
Weeks passed, and James Chase began coming home later and later in the evening. For a while she kept track of the odometer, and going by the miles stacking up on the pickup, determined he was probably going out to that mansion where the "Praise Meeting" was held. If not that, then God only knew where he'd been. Up and on the job for Brother Joseph, every day, driving all over on errands for the church, the Sacred Part of the Frozen Ones or some such nonsense. She began to withdraw herself, never going out except to buy food, and that the absolutely cheapest she could find. She prayed the checks wouldn't bounce after every trip.
Then finally Jim stayed out overnight, then two, then three nights in a row. Cindy wasn't terribly surprised; what surprised her was that he returned sober once or twice. Sober, yet untalkative. Whatever he was so fervently pursuing during the day, whatever his life had become as a new member of the Sacred Heart of the Chosen Ones, it wasn't his wife's place to know.
She had taken to sleeping in a bit more each day as her frustration built. She got up long enough to send Jamie off to school, then returned to bed. Sleep afforded her one way to escape the craziness the church had conjured.
She went back to answering the phone and talking to the neighbors, trying to hide the pain with makeup and forced smiles. Then one particular morning she answered the phone, after James had left for whatever it was he did during the day. It was Jamie's school; with a start she realized she hadn't seen him off that morning. The principal's secretary wanted to know if everything was all right and reminded Cindy that calling the parents was procedure when a child didn't show up for class. Uncertain why she was covering for him, she explained that he was home ill and that she had simply forgotten to notify the school. She hung up and began running through the house, calling Jamie's name, looking for some clue as to his whereabouts.
Just when she thought she was going to lose her mind she found the note taped on the refrigerator door. It was in James' handwriting and it did ease her mindfor a moment. It simply told her not to worry, that he had taken Jamie with him for the day, though it didn't specify exactly why.
Even though she didn't suspect kidnaping then, the note opened up a Pandora's box of ominous possibilities. But before she could think coherently enough to worry about what might be happening to her son, the phone rang again. The bank was calling to tell her that five checks had bounced, and that both the share and draft accounts had been closed weeks before by James Chase.
She hung up, numb with shock.
She ran for the bedroom. A brief, hysterical inspection showed that no clothes had been taken, at least that she could tell. His shaver, shotgun, a World War II Luger, a Craftsman socket set, were all still in the house, and wouldn't be if James had really left. Not wanting to even think about the notion, she decided that it was too crazy even for James. She spent an anxious day cleaning, releasing nervous energy, venting her frustration. Around noon, she had an anxiety attack, and for ten minutes she couldn't take a breath.
Jamie is with those lunatics, she thought, repeatedly. She finally calmed herself enough to breathe, but she knew she could not go on like this, day after day, wondering what twist her husband's insanity would take this time.
Late that afternoon the pickup pulled into the garage, its bumper tapping the back wall hard enough to make an audible crack. Cindy heard her son crying. She ran to find Jamie in tears, her husband drunk, and a thousand unanswered questions staring her in the face.
"Oh, Jamie, Jamie, what's wrong?" She'd held him, getting no sense out of him. "What happened? Did your daddy do something to you? Did Daddy hurt you?"
She looked around furtively to see if Daddy was around and within earshot; inside the kitchen, she heard the hiss of a beer tab.
"No. Wasn't Daddy," Jamie blurted, through the tears. "It was Br . . . Brother Joseph." He sniffled, glancing over her shoulder, apparently looking for James. "Please, Mommy, don't let him take me back there ever again!"
She held him closer, forcing back some fear and trembling of her own.
James stayed long enough to finish off the last of the beer and left alone with vague promises to return soon. As soon as he was gone she called a women's shelter and briefly explained her situation. Soon a motherly, older woman arrived to pick them up. At the shelter, a young graduate lawyer eager to log some court experience was waiting for them. He took down the essential information and assured her that she had a good case, and would probably get full custody. Cindy had a problem with that word, probably, but got on with the business of settling in at the shelter and quizzed Jamie on what exactly had happened at the Chosen Ones' church.
On a bed in a common room they shared with several other women and their children, Jamie sat and tried to tell his mother what had taken place in the church, describing an odd ritual on the stage in the meeting hall, in which he was the central figure. Twice her son tried to tell her what happened, getting to a certain point in the explanation, whereupon he would burst into hysterical sobs.
What happened back there? she wondered, half sick with fear that they had done something truly evil and harmful, emotionally, to her son. Divorce seemed to be the only answer, if she was going to protect her child.
Her uncertainties hardened into resolve. Never again. That psycho is never coming near my son again!
She steeled herself for a fight, for some attempt by James to counter her actionsbut nothing happened. The court proceedings went smoothly and without incident. There were twenty or thirty other child abuse cases pending against the cult in question, some of which the police were already investigating. The judge expressed the belief that Cindy had tolerated far more than she should have, and if James Chase had bothered to show up for the hearings he would have no doubt received a severe tongue-lashing. During the week preceding the hearing Cindy returned to the house with two large men from the shelter and retrieved a few missed items, and while there she discovered that her husband had apparently left with his clothes, the shotgun, the Luger and the tools. Though the lawyer had papers served to James at the house, it now appeared he had left for good. Taking no chances, and at the strong urging of her companions, veterans of situations like these, she remained at the shelter until after the hearing. With the help of the shelter, she got a part-time job at Burger King. The judge granted Cindy Chase full custody of her son, ownership of the house, and declared their marriage null and void. Finally.
She had thought it was over, that they were safe. That Jamie was safe.
Then, on Friday of the fourth week following the divorce, Cindy waited on the porch for Jamie's school-bus. Just like always.
The bus squeaked to a halt, disgorged its screaming passengers, and shuddered away. There was no Jamie.
Cindy rushed inside and called the school. The teachers told her that Jim had taken him out of class an hour before the end of the day.
Hysterical, she notified the police, but the response was underwhelming. After an hour an officer showed up at the school to take a report. If the school's principal and Jamie's teacher hadn't stayed to comfort her, she would have gone over the edge right there. There wasn't a whole lot they could do, the officer said . . . there were so many missing children, so few personnel, so little budget. She explained that this was different, that she knew her husband had taken him, there were witnesses for crissakes, and the cult was crazy, they had to do something, right now before they . . .
The officer had sadly shaken his head and told her they would do what they could. From his tone, however, it sounded like it wouldn't be much.
From memory Cindy drove to the cult's mansion, where she had been to her first Praise Meeting. She took several wrong turns, but after hours of relentless driving found the huge house. Realty signs in the front lawn declared the property for sale. The house, itself, was empty. Cleaned out.
The police, as she feared, weren't much help. She found herself in the position of thousands of other parents whose ex-spouses had kidnaped their children. Since she couldn't tell them where the cult could have gone, their options were limited. Through the parents of other child abuse victims, she learned that other members of the Chosen Ones had also vanished. Bank accounts and personal property, mostly cars and trucks, went with them. It was clear to Cindy that the cult had staged a mass exodus from Georgia. To where, she had no idea.
The only thing of value that James had left behind was the house. That, Cindy surmised, was only because it was too heavy to take with him. She needed money, lots of it, to search for her son. She double-mortgaged the house and sold everything out of it she could, all of the appliances and Jim's stereo, which miraculously had been left behind. With a certain wry satisfaction she sold her engagement and wedding rings to a pawnshop and used the money in part to pay for the divorce. Robert Weil, "Private Investigator" suggested they first begin by putting Jamie's picture on milk cartons. The Missing Children's advocacy group was very helpful.
The rest of her time and energy she spent keeping herself together. There were any number of times that she could have slipped over the edge and gone totally bonkers, and often she wondered if she had. Occasionally she slept, but most nights she did not. Her employers were sympathetic at first, but as the weeks passed, so did the sympathy. She began receiving warning "talks," suggestions by her male boss that she "pull herself together" and "let the professionals handle it." She sensed an unspoken feeling that her boss felt she was to blame for the entire mess. . . .
Robert Weil, "Private Investigator," turned out to be next to worthless to her search. He just wasn't doing anything, so she fired him. Then the leads began to trickle in from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, information that was the direct result of the milk carton photographs. From Atlanta they began to track him west, from three different sightings a day apart. She stocked up the Celica with what she could from the house, quit her job (just before they were about to fire her, she suspected), and left, taking up the trail herself.
The money disappeared quickly. She checked in periodically with the Missing Children's group, and finally learned that the two had actually been spotted by several witnesses in northeastern Oklahoma. Driving all night, she arrived in Tulsa around daybreak, and after she caught a few hours of sleep she asked the desk clerk if he knew of any race tracks in the area. Not even involvement in the cult had stopped Jim's addiction to racing and cars before the divorce. The only track the clerk was aware of was Hallet; he knew there were others, he just didn't know where. She made plans to search out each one, provided her money held out.
Right now it looked like she needed a miracle. I guess nobody's handing out miracles today.
She stifled a sob, put the picture away in her purse, and started looking for a restroom. If I'm going to get anywhere with this I've got to make myself presentable. A place to freshen up, maybe. I'm not going all the way back to the motel. I don't have money to stay there much longer, anyway. She trudged towards what looked like facilities and fought back a wave of dizziness. The heat
Her vision blurred, seeing blue sky, with the kind face of an aging man in the center, like a Victorian picture of a saint. She blinked again.
"Are you all right, miss?" the man said in a rusty voice. "You keeled plumb over."
She was lying on her back in the grass, and there was a sore place on the back of her head. The man helped her to sit up a little; from his blue coveralls she assumed he was connected to the track somehow. He held a cup of lemonade to her lips, which she gulped gratefully.
"Whoa, now, hold on! Not so fast. You'll make yourself sick again," the man said. Around them, an unwanted audience of gawkers slowly formed in the thick sludge of the heat.
"What happened?" she asked stupidly, feeling vulnerable in her supine position, the words just coming out automatically. She knew what had happened. Her brain just wasn't working properly yet.
"Well, you fainted, little missy! Would you like me to call an ambulance?"
"No!" she exclaimed, not out of fear for doctors, but out of concern for how much it would cost.
"Well, okay then, if you think you're all right," he said, still sounding concerned. "You know, we have a first aid tent near the concession stand," the man said. "If you're suffering from heatstroke the thing to do would be to get over there."
"No, I'm fine, really," she said, and she meant it. With the cooling lemonade her energy returned quickly. "I think I'll sit here a while and drink this, if that's okay with you. I guess the heat just got to me."
"Of course it's okay. If you want a refill, just holler," the man said, winking in a friendly way. There wasn't anything sexual about it, something for which she was glad. He reminds me of my father, when he was alive, Cindy thought, looking at the deep wrinkles in the man's face, which seemed to be made of stone. When he winked, the wrinkles fanned out over his face like cracks in a windshield. He leaned closer, looking like he thought he might have recognized her. "I've never seen you at this track before, have I?"
"Well, I've been here all day," she said, trying and failing to keep the frustration out of her voice. "Maybe you can help me," she added, feeling a slight surge of hope. Cindy pulled the photograph of her child out of her purse and handed it to the man. "I'm here looking for my son. His name is Jamie. . . ."
She hadn't intended to tell him her life's story, but he seemed content to sit and listen to her, shaking his head and tsking at the right moments. Finally, she thought, as she prattled on about her husband, the cult, and her missing son, somebody who'll listen to me!
Finally the old man nodded. "Miss, you ain't had nothin' but bad luck, that's for sure. Sounds to me like this fella is a pretty hard-core racing fan. And hard-core fans tend to hang out with the pros in the pits. I haven't seen your son, but maybe someone else has. Would ya like to come have a look see?"
Without hesitation she accepted, and soon found herself waiting for a break in the race, so that they could cross over to the pits. When the break came, another wave of heat came over her, and she thought with a touch of panic that she was going to pass out.
Not again, she thought, and willed her strength back.
The moment passed, without her new friend noticing. He escorted herwith an odd touch of gallantrypast a short cinderblock wall where a man waited, watching who came in. One nod from her heaven-sent escort allowed them through.
When she entered the pits her senses were assaulted with the sights and smells of racing. Everywhere she walked, she stepped over oil-marked concrete, bits and pieces of race cars lay strewn everywhere, usually in the form of washers, bolts and bracketsshe thought irresistibly of a dinosaur graveyard, strewn with bones.
A blast of something aromatic and potent, which she identified a moment later as high-octane racing fuel, threatened another fainting spell.
Too overwhelmed by sight and sound, smell and vibration, she stood, trapped like an animal caught in the headlights.
Then the sound, at least, stopped. In the temporary absence of engine roar, she found her ears ringing, and when she turned to see where her friend had gone she saw him rushing off to a race car that had just pulled in. I guess I'm on my own now.
The people she saw were either frantically going somewhere in a huge hurry, or doing nothing at all, some even looking bored. It was this latter group that she tried to talk to, praying under her breath that she wouldn't get in the way. She hoped she knew enough from her racing experiences with her husband to tell when a crew was seconds away from swarming over a car, or when they were just trying to kill time.
She approached one team, who seemed more intent on barbecuing ribs than changing tires on a race car. Men stood around a portable grill, holding beer cans in beefy fists, and stepping back when the grease flared. Some of them were apparently drunk, and while this reminded her uncomfortably of her ex-husband, she went up to one anyway.
"Hi, I'm looking for my son, this is a picture," she said, holding the photograph out. "Have you seen him?"
The man's features softened briefly, but when he saw the picture, they hardened. He said curtly, "No, I haven't," and looked at her as if she didn't belong there.
Another, younger man, who might have even been the driver, smiled broadly and shook his head, and then promptly ignored her presence, as if she had faded into invisibility. She asked the next man, and the next, feeling like a scratched record.
No, we haven't seen your son. Are you sure you're in the right place?
Then, one large man staggered over to join the group, a hulk with a barrel-chested torso that could have stored a beer keg, and probably had.
"I might have," the big man said, belching loudly. He's so much like Jim, she thought, wondering if this man might even know him. "But then again, I might not. What's the story, lady?"
"He's my son," she repeated. Does he know something? she thought madly, hoping that maybe he did. Has he seen Jamie or is he just playing with me? "My husband, his name is James Chase, do you know him? He sort of took Jamie away, we're divorced and I got full custody. James took him out of school, in Atlanta, and they were last seen in Tulsa."
"Maybe you should go look in Tulsa," he said rudely. But then he continued, his eyes narrowing with arrogant belligerence. "And what's this crap you're saying about kidnaping, anyway? And how the hell did you get full custody? Must have cost you a lot to take a man's son away from him."
Cindy became very quiet, shocked into silence. The man moved in closer to her, exhaling beer fumes in her face.
"What kind of a mother are you, anyway? Jesus Christ, lady, if you were a decent mother maybe your son wouldn't have gone away with your old man. Would he?"
His unfairness and hostility conspired with the heat to glue her to the spot, unable to move, like a frightened kitten cowering away from a pit bull. The man continued the tirade, with angry enthusiasmreally getting into shouting at a woman half his sizebut she didn't hear any of it. The heat was catching up with her again, and a race car started up and was revving loudly nearby, drowning out all the senseless noises the man was attempting to make.
But in the nightmare the day had become, she could read his lips. Let it go. Just let it go, lady, the boy's probably happier with his father anyway. Go find another hubby and raise some more brats.
The cars roared away.
"And no real woman would"
That was the last straw. Unable to take it anymore, without even the noise of the nearby car to completely take away the man's unpleasantness, she turned violently and stumbled away. She didn't want him to have the pleasure of watching her cry.
She walked slowly, so that her blurring eyes wouldn't betray her into a fall, vaguely aware of the man shouting behind her, unaware of where exactly she was. The tears surged forth now, breaking through a wall she didn't even know was there. She leaned on an oil barrel, faint again from the heat, and let the tears come freely. There weren't many witnesses here, and what few there were didn't care, didn't matter. . . .
"Al, what is it?" Bob asked, moderately concerned. "Anything important?"
Alinor shrugged, feeling the source of the emotional overload coming closer. She must be in the pit area by now. Perhaps I shouldn't involve Bob yet . . . until I know a little more about what's going on here.
"Oh, I don't think so," Alinor said, forcing a yawn, but Bob didn't look like he believed him. He knows me too well, Al thought. He doesn't look it from the outside, but for a young human he's darned sharp.
"I'm sure you won't mind if I tag along. The car's going in anyway," Bob said slyly, as more of a statement instead of a question.
"Yeah, sure," Al said, too casually. To say "no" would certainly tip him off. Perhaps the gods intend for him to be involved in this one after all.
"I've got afeeling. Not sure if it's anything," Al said conversationally, as they walked toward the core of the paddock, the pit area where most of the cars came in to refuel. "Might be nothing, but then it might be"
Al stopped in mid-sentence as he watched Bob's eyes tracking like an alert scout's, first to the racetrack, then to a group of men clustered around a grill.
Then came the emotion again, piercing his mage-shields like nothing he'd felt in a long time, and he put one hand up to his temple, reflexively.
"Is this what got your attention?" Bob asked calmly, pointing at a large man who was yelling at a small woman holding a photograph. From the emotion and thought-energies he was picking up now, Al knew that the picture was of the child she had lost. He had seen the man before, and knew he was a first-class misogynist, a male chauvinist pig, an egotist, a jerk. A general pain in the rear.
In short, Al didn't like him. And he would be perfectly pleased to have a chance to show the bastard up.
Saying nothing to Bob, he approached the pair. He privately hoped Bob would stay back and remain out of the situation long enough for him to find out precisely what was going on.
The woman paled and turned away from the bully, obviously fighting back tears. When the man took one step after her, Al intervened, wishing he dared land the punch he longed to take, but knowing he had to be far more surreptitious than that.
You don't need to follow her, Al sent, winding the impulse past the man's beer-fogged conscious. Go back to the party. Leave her alone.
The man paused, shook his head, and crushed the beer can in his right hand.
He hadn't noticed Al's little thought-probe as coming from outside himself. Now Al was confident enough about keeping his powers a secret that he sent one final nudge: She doesn't matter. Besides, there's more beer at the barbecue.
This last item seemed to get his attention away from his victim. He turned and walked uncertainly back to the barbecue, directly for the ice chest, ignoring the ribs being served. No doubt of where his priorities lay.
Alinor waited a moment before approaching the woman, who had obviously taken more than she could bear this afternoon. For a moment he thought she was going to pass right out and fall into the barrel she was leaning against.
She is in such pain over her child, Al anguished with her, waiting for the right moment before going to her. I must help her. There is more about this than is apparent on the surface.
"Excuse me," Al said softly, coming up behind her. "Are you . . . all right?"
She sniffled, as if trying to get herself under control, then turned slowly around. Their eyes met briefly before she looked away, and he sensed she was embarrassed about her appearance. Her eyes were puffy and red; obviously, she'd cried more than once today. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said, between sniffles.
Al calmly watched her, waiting for her to respond to the fact that he was not buying her story for even a minute.
Her jaw clenched, and she choked on a sob. "No. I'm not all right," she said, contradicting herself, but finally admitting the obvious. "Please. I don't know who you are, but I need help. This guy helped me get in here, but I don't know how to get out. The rules. Whatever."
And then she burst into sobs again, turning away from him.
Saying nothing, knowing that there was nothing he could say for the human that could possibly help her at that moment, he took her hand to lead her to a little grassy area near the track that was reasonably quiet and shaded. He sent Bob for cold drinks and told him where they'd be. Bob rolled his eyes, but cooperated nonetheless. Al ignored him.
He'll remember soon enough what it means to help a human in distress, Al thought. It will all come back clearly to him when he sees what's wrong. He was on the receiving end once. I don't know what it is involved in this yet, but I can tell this isn't going to be light.
He saw to it that she was seated in a way that would keep her back to most of the track-denizens, and handed her a fistful of napkins to dry her tears.
Then he waited. The revelation was not long in coming. When she had composed herself sufficiently she showed him her son's picture and began her plea, her words tumbling over each other as if she feared he would not give her a chance to speak them. "That's Jamie, my son. My husband . . . I mean, my ex-husband kidnaped him from his school in Atlanta, and"
"Now wait, slow down," Al said softly. "Start from the beginning. Please."
Cindy nodded, took a deep breath, then explained to him what had really happened, telling him about the cult and the eerie change that had come over her husband. The parts about her ex-husband's alcoholism reminded him of Bob's past history, and Al was grateful the young mechanic returned with the drinks in time to hear it. He saw Bob's eyes narrow and his lips compress into a thin, hard line, and knew that the human had been won over within three sentences.
The story aroused many deep reactions in him, from the near-instinctive protective urges shared by all elves, to the feeling that this was only the surface of a larger problem. There was more here than just one little boy being kidnaped.
There is death here, he thought, with a shudder he concealed. None of the Folk cared to think about death, that grim enemy who stole the lives of their human friends and occasionally touched even the elven ranks. But he knew it, with the certainty that told him his flash of intuition was truth. There is death involved, and pain. And not just this woman's pain, or her son's. He was not one of the Folk gifted with Fore-Seeing, with the ability to sense or see the futurebut he had a premonition now. This wasn't just about one small boy.
As she finished the story, Al studied the photograph, engraving the image permanently in his mind. Now I must help, he thought with determination. I could never turn away from something like this. And, with ironic self-knowledge, It was time for another adventure, anyway.
"And that's it," Cindy concluded, as if she felt a little more heartened by his willingness to listen. "I'm just about at the end of the line. And I think I'm going crazy sometimes. Can you, I don't know, ask around? I don't know what else to do."
"I'll do anything I can to help you," Al said firmly, looking to Bob for support. The human shruggedboth at Al and at his own willingness to get involvedsighed and rolled his eyes again ever so slightly.
"I'll take that as a yes," Al told him, then turned to Cindy. "When you feel a little better, we can start asking around the track. I know the people here who would be sharp enough to notice something odd about your ex-husband and your son." He laughed a little, hoping to cheer her a bit. "Most folks here, if it doesn't have four wheels, it doesn't exist."
She looked from him to Bob and back again, gratefuland bewildered. "Th-th-thank you, Al. And Bob," she said at last, looking as if she didn't quite believe in her luck. "What can I do to, you know, pay you back?"
She sounded apprehensive, and Al did not have to pry to know what she thought might be demanded in return for this "friendly" help. "Not a thing," Al quickly supplied. "But I do need a little more information about your son and your ex. We know he likes races. What about some other things he enjoys? What might attract him here in particular, and where else might he go around here?"
No, he had not been mistaken; the relief she felt at his reply was so evident it might as well have been written on her forehead. Thank God, I won't have tohe isn't going to
Al sighed. Why was it that sex could never come simply, joyfully, for these people? Along with the curse of their mortality came the curse of their own inhibitions.
Ah, what fools these mortals be, he thought, not for the first timeand turned his attention back to the far more important matter of a child in danger.
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|Copyright:||© 1992 by Mercedes Lackey|